Searching for Wild Bill’s Cabin
If you’ve been to Banff National Park, you’ve seen the face of Wild Bill Peyto staring out from the welcome signs. But exactly who was this legendary Canadian, and whatever became of his mysterious backwoods cabin? This young man made it his mission to find out.
The Secret of Wild Bill’s Cabin
Anyone who’s ever been to Banff National Park has encountered Bill Peyto, even if they weren’t aware of it. His likeness adorns the “Welcome to Banff” signs that greet visitors as they enter town. The raucous saloon on the corner of Banff Avenue and Caribou Street borrowed his famous moniker for its name: Wild Bill’s. Bill Peyto’s Café, a restaurant in Lake Louise that’s quickly becoming a favourite among locals, also bears his title. He even has a lake, a glacier, a mountain and an Alpine Club of Canada hut named in his honour. The man has reached legendary status in the wilds of Alberta.
Ebenezer William “Bill” Peyto was born in England in 1869 and immigrated to Canada in 1887 at the young age of 18. He eventually made his way to the Rocky Mountains of Alberta, where he proved to be a proficient outfitter and mountaineer. Between enlistments in the Boer War and World War I, Peyto joined the Warden Service, making him one of the first wardens in Banff, which was known as Rocky Mountains Park at that time. He married Emily Wood in 1902 and the birth of their son Robert soon followed. Emily suddenly passed away in 1906, and Robert was sent to live with his mother’s family for a time. Peyto remained with the Warden Service until his retirement in 1934. After retiring, he led a very private life until his death in 1943.
The stories about his exploits, embellished or not, are sure to lure even the most indifferent bystander into the mystique that is Bill Peyto. There’s the one where he walked into a Banff bar with a live lynx strapped to his back, sending the patrons running for the exits and giving Peyto the place to himself. Or the winter he raised two orphaned cougar kittens in one of his secluded cabins so they wouldn’t perish. Or how he would regularly leave clients alone for the night during outfitting expeditions so he could have some solitude. It was his need for privacy and seclusion that drove him deeper into the wilderness, where he could coexist with the natural world instead of the man-made one that was rapidly developing around him. Peyto erected several cabins in the Healy Creek area of Banff National Park, where he could be alone and maintain his other interests, such as trapping, prospecting and mining.
Several years ago, I learned at least one of Peyto’s cabins was still standing, hidden away from the public, as Peyto himself had intended. I’m not referencing his fully restored cabin that sits on the grounds of the Whyte Museum but rather a cabin that remains exactly as it was when Peyto left it for the final time. I immediately started researching, hoping to uncover the location, but like surviving a harsh winter in the Canadian back-country, finding the cabin proved exceedingly difficult. Google searches only revealed veiled references to the cabin’s existence; nothing was concrete in terms of an actual location. Discouraged but not defeated, I turned to word-of-mouth tactics and began talking with folks who knew about the cabin and some who had even been there. Despite my best efforts, I was only able to uncover the fact that the cabin truly does exist and that it was in the vicinity of Simpson Pass. It appeared that the cabin’s location was a closely guarded secret; without specific details, searching that vast, forested area would be the equivalent of looking for the proverbial needle in a haystack. I didn’t give up entirely on standing in Peyto’s forgotten cabin, but my hopes were diminishing rapidly.
A few years passed and my plans went into hibernation until I caught a break. As the outdoor editor for Calgary Is Awesome, I was invited to Sunshine Meadows for a media-day program they were hosting. Our guide for the day, Alex, was supplied by White Mountain Adventures and knew of Peyto’s cabin, but hadn’t actually been there himself. He, too, was interested in finding the elusive cabin, so we joined forces, gathering intel from a variety of places. One of the biggest pieces of the puzzle came in the form of a cryptic, eight-line poem written by Jim Deegan, a guest of Peyto’s at the cabin, which he refers to as “Bookrest.” The poem describes the cabin using obscure references to the area, loosely hinting at its secret location.
“On Simpson Pass,
atop the Divide,
among the yellow tamarack
stands a cabin in a meadow,
a lone prospector’s shack.
Weathering in the elements,
abandoned in the vale,
a sod-roofed fortress, built
beside an old packtrail.”
Armed with the poem and a rough map indicating the cabin’s approximate location within a large circle, Alex and I put boots on the ground and set off in search of Peyto’s mysterious cabin. On a typical day, the stunning hike towards Simpson Pass would have been reward enough, but the prospect of finally finding Bookrest was all-consuming.
We began our search as the sun sat low in the sky, making several passes through dense forest, always remaining within auditory contact of each other. I expected to see the cabin around every corner, but we kept coming up empty-handed. Although we observed evidence of previous human existence in the area, such as hand-sawn tree stumps, the cabin continued to elude us. With hunger panging our stomachs like a drum, we decided to refuel and refocus while appreciating an unmatched view of the Monarch.
Once our bellies were full, we took another look at the map and the poem, hoping to uncover additional clues that we’d originally missed. We formulated a new plan and again set off into the forest. Quicker than either of us had imagined, we stumbled upon an overgrown trail that obviously hadn’t been used in quite some time. With rekindled enthusiasm, we hurried down the trail, hoping we were finally on the right one. The old trail was so overrun with brush that eventually it became impassable. We split up, one going left, one right, to search for a way around the barrier. As if by some coincidence, while checking in with each other, we both stopped mid-sentence and stared off into the distance, trying to process what we were seeing. Tucked away in a stand of larch and pine, scarcely visible from our respective locations, sat the ramshackle remains of Bill Peyto’s Bookrest cabin. We had found it! Just by laying eyes on this obscure refuge, we had joined a select fraternity with very few members.
Eager to thoroughly explore the cabin’s derelict remains, but hyper-aware of the rapidly fading daylight, we made the most out of the short time we allotted ourselves at the cabin. As our time expired and we began hiking back to the trailhead, I couldn’t help but smile. My ambitious search for the colourful character that was Bill Peyto had ended. This pioneer of the wilderness, who made the mountains his home and worked hard to maintain an isolated lifestyle, just had the curtains pulled back on a small part of his mysterious existence. My venture was not out of disrespect but of curiosity and an inquisitiveness to learn more about the man and how he prospered in a very different time.
Don’t worry, Bill, your secret is safe with me.